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Escape From New York

New York is a disease. Meet the cure.

In 1997, when the U.S. president crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in to rescue him.


Escape From New York at 40: John Carpenter rebelling against the system
The director’s rule-breaking action adventure saw him doing his own thing, whether Hollywood was willing to accept it or not

Kurt Russell as an iconoclast forced to accept a near-suicidal mission in Escape from New York Photograph: Allstar/EMBASSY PICTURES

Scott Tobias, THE GUARDIAN
Sat 10 Jul 2021 06.29 BST

With a pirate’s eyepatch and a scowl that seems as fixed and enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s smile, Snake Plissken, the hero of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, drifts through a cataclysmic future like a man condemned, forced into a mission that, at best, might save a world he doesn’t care about anyway. The allegiances he forges along the way are hard-earned but only temporary, swiftly discarded as he survives one assignment and looks ahead to another one. He is deeply suspicious of authority, too, from the two-faced benefactor who’s forcing him through an impossible gauntlet to an aloof president who’s openly contemptuous of him and others like him.

n other words, Snake Plissken is John Carpenter, and Escape from New York was the first of three films in the 1980s in which Kurt Russell would serve as his charismatic stand-in – an iconoclast who had no home in the new Hollywood, but would take up residence on its fringes. As Plissken runs and guns his way through a Manhattan that’s been turned into maximum security prison, it’s easy to imagine it as an allegory for a film production, where Carpenter weaves his way through an impossible job with the help of fellow ne’er-do-wells that he’ll have to leave behind at the end. If he survives, it’s onto the next gauntlet.

At the time, it wouldn’t have been possible to guess the arc that Carpenter’s career would follow during the 80s, other than having faith that the independent genre maestro responsible for Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and The Fog would keep his hot streak going. But 40 years later, Escape from New York looks like the beginning of a story that he (and occasionally Russell) would tell about a decade where he never fit comfortably into the Hollywood system or the changing political climate. It would be the last of his independent films until The Ward in 2010, but rarely did it ever feel like Carpenter was working for anyone but himself, even when he had to puzzle out what studios and modern audiences might want from him.

In the lead-up to Escape from New York, crime rates were at an all-time high in urban centers like New York, which moviegoers could see reflected back at them through the dingy hyper-realism of films like Taxi Driver and The Warriors or grindhouse fodder like Maniac Cop and The Driller Killer. At the same time, Carpenter, who had written the script in the mid-70s, was marinating in the anger and disillusionment around Watergate and the Vietnam war, which confirmed his own instinctual distrust of anyone in power. He wouldn’t get overtly political until 1988’s They Live, with its satirical potshots at the Reagan era, but this film was informed by a bracing pessimism about America’s present and future.

In fact, the world-building of Escape from New York is significantly more inspired than the meat-and-potatoes action that takes place within it. The opening titles report that the crime rate has risen 400%, which has prompted the country to essentially give up on New York City entirely, erecting 50ft barrier walls around Manhattan and turning the borough into an open-air prison. A militarized police force manages the prison by helicopter, with a processing facility on Liberty Island, but mostly the inmates are left to themselves. Rehabilitation is not the goal here.

Sent to Manhattan for attempting to rob the Federal Reserve – the noblest of crimes in this corrupt system – Plissken is offered a long-shot chance at getting out. En route to a peace summit, Air Force One has been hijacked and crashed into a building eerily close to the World Trade Center. The president (Donald Pleasance) has managed to escape in a pod and is being held captive by the Duke (Issac Hayes), the unofficial crime boss of New York. The police commissioner, played by the legendary Lee Van Cleef (the “Bad” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), offers Plissken a full pardon if he can rescue the president within 24 hours. And he does mean 24 hours: two capsules are inserted into Plissken’s body that will explode if he fails to meet the deadline.

And so Plissken ventures into the urban jungle, slipping through the apocalyptic wreckage of a once-great city, now ruled by the Duke’s gang and under threat by the savage “crazies” that occasionally emerge from the underground. Carpenter didn’t have the budget to shoot in New York for more than a day, so St Louis played a stand-in, which accounts for why so much of the film is shrouded in darkness and doesn’t include many recognizable landmarks. It seems likely that Manhattan intrigued Carpenter most because it’s an island, like Alcatraz, and the city itself could look like any other urban center ravaged by violence and neglect.

escapefromny_scenestill.jpegA scene from Escape from New York
Photograph: Allstar/EMBASSY PICTURES

In Russell, Carpenter found his modern-day John Wayne, though they wouldn’t underline the connection until Big Trouble in Little China, when they aped Wayne’s machismo to hilarious effect. Plissken isn’t quite as colorful a character, which leaves room for a parade of character actors to fill the void, like Harry Dean Stanton as an eccentric engineer who jerry-rigged an oil refinery to fuel up abandoned cars, or Ernest Borgnine as a slap-happy cab driver who seems less like a criminal than a guy who shrugged off calls to evacuate the city. In one of the funniest moments in the movie, he casually lights up a molotov cocktail and tosses it out the car window without so much as a break in the conversation. He’s a New Yorker. He adapts.

There’s a slight disconnect between the science-fiction and action in Escape from New York, in that Carpenter’s inspired vision of near-future America isn’t fully served by Plissken’s frenzied efforts to rescue a president who doesn’t deserve rescuing. All the exposition in the beginning sets the action in context, but Carpenter doesn’t follow through with much in the way of social commentary once the shooting starts. (That wouldn’t be the case with his wobbly sequel, Escape from LA, so perhaps be careful what you wish for.) He wants to show the audience a good time and he excels at it here, squeezing every last dime of the budget for Mad Max -style mayhem and providing one of his best and moodiest scores.

Escape from New York closes on a nihilistic prank, with our hero setting up a callous president for embarrassment on the international stage. He can’t change the world, but he can raise his middle finger at it. Again, Carpenter is no different than Plissken. All he can do is get the job done and move on to the next adventure.

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Directed by: 
John Carpenter
Running Time: 
Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef & Ernest Borgnine
Screenplay by: 
John Carpenter & Nick Castle
14A; Language/Violence

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